Former judge fired up on making pot legal

All right, tell me this doesn’t sound a little strange:

I’m sitting in Costa Mesa with a silver-haired gent who once ran for Congress as a Republican and used to lock up drug dealers as a federal prosecutor, a man who served as an Orange County judge for 25 years. And what are we talking about? He’s begging me to tell you we need to legalize drugs in America.

DISCUSS: Should drugs be legal?”Please quote me,” says Jim Gray, insisting the war on drugs is hopeless. “What we are doing has failed.”

As far as I can tell, Gray is not off his rocker. He’s not promoting drug use, he says for clarification. Anything but. If he had his way, half the revenue we would generate from taxing and regulating drugs would be plowed back into drug prevention education, and there’d be rehab on demand.

So here he is in coat and tie — with a U.S. flag lapel pin — eating his oatmeal and making perfect sense, even when talking about the way President Obama flippantly dismissed a question about legalizing marijuana last week during a White House news conference.

“Politicians get reelected talking tough regarding the war on drugs,” says Gray. “Do you want to hear the speech? Vote for Gray. I will put drug dealers in jail and save your children.”

I had gone to visit Gray in part to discuss his support for a bill introduced last month by Democratic San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who is calling for marijuana to be regulated and taxed much like alcohol.

Does the bill have a chance?

I wouldn’t bet a pack of Zig-Zag rolling paper. It’s a provocative idea that gets dusted off now and again, but the usual reaction is either ridicule or sober concern about sending the wrong message to youths, among others, and making substance abuse a greater problem than it already is.

But take a look at the world, people.

Mexican drug lords are better armed than police and killing thousands who don’t buy into the corruption — with the violence crashing our borders — and American enemies abroad are financed by the opium trade.

Ten days ago I visited a Los Angeles elementary school where students practice dropping to the floor and making themselves as flat as pancakes to avoid stray bullets from the gang-infested neighborhood, and drugs play a role in that violence. On Wednesday I strolled through downtown Los Angeles and marijuana smoke filled the air, a mocking reminder of the impossible task of eradicating drugs, despite the trillions spent and the thousands of people we’ve locked away in our jails and prisons.

Bravo to Hillary Rodham Clinton, says Gray, for admitting last week that American demand for drugs is responsible for the bloodshed in Mexico.

“But she got the facts right and the solution wrong,” he says, just as everyone else has in a war that’s been escalating for decades.

Gray was on the Municipal Court bench in the 1980s when he took his first hit from the reform pipe. The vast majority of the cases coming before him were alcohol-related, he said, and he was able to divert defendants into screening and recovery. But he couldn’t do the same in drug cases, and he was frustrated, both in Municipal Court bench and later on the Superior Court bench.

“Our jails are filled with low-level users who sold to support the habit,” says Gray, who believes that the tougher the criminal justice system gets on drug offenders, the fewer resources it has to go after rapists, robbers and other criminals.

In 1992 he called a news conference in Santa Ana and stated his case for legalized drugs. In Orange County, that was like coming out in favor of communism and nose rings, but Gray never flinched from insisting that the drug war was a waste of tax dollars and that it was putting too many citizens and police in harm’s way. He became a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and wrote the book “Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It.” “His book drives a stake through the heart of the failed war on drugs,” says a back-cover blurb from Walter Cronkite.

Gray, by the way, is a former Peace Corps volunteer and Navy lawyer who now counts himself a Libertarian, all of which reminds us why we love California. He says his conservative roots make him the best man for the campaign to legalize drugs.

“Who better than a conservative judge in a conservative county who’s never used any form of illicit drugs?” he asks.

When Ammiano’s bill was introduced, Gray was invited to the news conference by the openly gay Democrat.

“I have received standing ovations from the ACLU and the Young Republicans of Orange County,” says Gray. “It crosses all political lines.”

Not everyone thinks he’s citizen of the year, though. Gray says he’s often asked about sending the wrong message, and he responds with a reality check. Anyone who wants illegal drugs can easily get them, but doing so may put them in harm’s way. Wouldn’t it be smarter to sell the drugs at government stores, so advertising could be outlawed, taxes collected on one of California’s biggest cash crops and drug gangs eradicated?

If Gray had his way, no one under 21 could buy drugs. But anyone older than that could legally buy marijuana — which, he says, causes nowhere near the amount of death and disease as alcohol. The state would need to see how that works, he said, before moving on to legalizing the sale of harder drugs. Sure, he says, legalization might lead to more toking at first, but he believes drug use would wane when it was no longer forbidden and the novelty wore off.

I’m not sure I agree with that point, but I say we give it a try, and I do buy into Gray’s argument about who the winners are in the current system.

First, there are the drug lords in Mexico and beyond. Then the drug gangs that peddle the stuff here. Next come the law enforcement agencies, prison contractors and prison guards, which use the war on drugs to demand more resources. And finally, there are the politicians who have wooed voters since the Nixon administration by pledging to support the war on drugs.

“My personal opinion,” says Gray, “is that we couldn’t have done worse if we tried.”